Robert Bernstein ’08 will never forget the encounter he had more than two decades ago at the intersection of East Grant and North Swan roads in Tucson, Arizona. It was the winter of 2003-04, and he was a high school senior. He was sitting at a table outside a shopping plaza, having the first substantive conversation of his life with a Princetonian — his alumni interview.

“Kids from Tucson didn’t really go to Princeton,” Bernstein recalls. “I didn’t know anyone from Tucson who had gone to Princeton, so meeting with Fred was impactful for me.”

Fred Frelinghuysen ’75, the interviewer, guided the conversation to Bernstein’s interests, including civics work and politics. He guessed that Bernstein might one day work in Washington, D.C. “I would try to get a sense of what the University didn’t have” in a prospective student’s written application, Frelinghuysen says of his approach during roughly eight years of volunteering as an alumni interviewer. The admission office “had the numbers. They had the recommendation letters. But what’s this person like?”

“I was just touched that this person, the interviewer, showed so much interest in me, lent so much time, just the authenticity and sincerity of the questions,” Bernstein says. “And I remember leaving the interview and thinking, ‘Who knows what will happen? But that was a wonderful conversation.’”

After Bernstein was admitted, Frelinghuysen sent him a letter of congratulations and a book, Katharine Graham’s Washington. Bernstein tucked the letter inside and shelved the book close by his desk, where it remained all through his years at Princeton, then law school, and throughout his career to this day. He did eventually land in Washington; now he’s a lawyer in Denver. One of the first steps he took upon graduating from Princeton was to become an alumni interviewer himself, to try to give to new generations of applicants the same meaningful encounter he had valued so much.

 Last June ­­— nearly 20 years after that indelible conversation in Tucson — an email popped up in Bernstein’s inbox. Cyrus Hatam ’23, a newly minted alumnus, was reaching back out to his alumni interviewer to explain just how much their conversation in a Washington, D.C., coffee shop had meant to him. “I always tell people how we talked for nearly two hours and went on several tangents about basketball,” Hatam wrote. “In case you were wondering, Arnold Schwarzenegger is still one of my idols, and I actually started a campaign to get him to speak at our graduation this year (which unfortunately failed but maybe next year).”

Hatam moved to San Francisco after graduation and took a job investing in clean energy. In his note to Bernstein, he added one more thing: “I definitely want to become an interviewer as well.”

Fred Frelinghuysen ’75
Fred Frelinghuysen ’75
Photo: Courtesy of Frelinghuysen ’75

Three Tigers, in three cities, are now linked across decades by this distinctive, deeply traditional, sometimes awkward, and more-complicated-than-ever feature of the journey to a Princeton education. Alumni interviewing is the largest form of volunteer service to the University, with more than 7,000 alumni conducting interviews each year. The interviews are optional, but most applicants seize the opportunity. As the number of applications has surged past 39,000 a year, the most in Princeton history, tens of thousands of these conversations are taking place — mostly via video chats, but also in coffee shops, libraries, offices, and parks — across the country and around the world. For students, the alumni interview is a near-universal rite of entry to Princeton, the first point of contact in a lifelong relationship with the University. For the vast majority of applicants who don’t end up at Princeton, it may feel like the conversation that didn’t go anywhere.

The rich exchanges of Frelinghuysen, Bernstein, and Hatam — and the strong alumni engagement they inspired — represent the ideal of the interview process. The University maintains a strong commitment to the program because  the interviews can provide vital insights about applicants, according to Karen Richardson ’93, the dean of admission.

Admission officers “don’t have the chance to sit down and have a half-an-hour conversation with applicants to learn more about them and to … give some more meat to their application,” Richardson says. “The write-ups that we receive from [alumni interviewers] can help to really bring some of that story to life. It can either confirm or disprove some of the narrative that we are seeing in the student’s essays and the recommendation letters … . We’re trying to figure out, as we’re building this community, who this student might be and how they might contribute to the dynamic community that’s already here.”

Robert Bernstein ’08
Robert Bernstein ’08
Photo: Courtesy of Bernstein ’08

Still, with the odds of gaining admission to Princeton getting slimmer, interviewers sometimes joke about going years without seeing anyone they interviewed be admitted. But Richardson says the interviews perform an ambassadorial function for the University even if they don’t lead to an admitted student. They show that Princeton is the kind of place that cares about meeting applicants as individuals. “Our hope is that every student — whether they are admitted or not, and whether they’re admitted and decide not to come to Princeton,” Richardson says, “that they can walk away saying, ‘Wow, that was a really nice conversation that I had with this person, and I learned about this place.’”

Yet the persistence of Princeton’s program is increasingly unusual. Some other highly selective universities have scaled back alumni interviews in recent years or eliminated them entirely. They generally cite the challenge of recruiting enough alumni to offer interviews to most, if not all, applicants who want one. In addition, the national spotlight on elite university admission practices, coupled with the recent Supreme Court decision forbidding the consideration of race and ethnicity as factors in admission, make it a potentially more sensitive matter to rely on thousands of alumni — who are not, after all, professional admission representatives — to engage with prospective students.

Columbia suspended its alumni interview program as of the 2023-24 admission cycle because alumni were unable to interview the “vast majority” of applicants, according to a statement last May. The University of Chicago replaced alumni and on-campus interviews with an option for applicants to submit a two-minute video introduction, starting with the Class of 2023. Brown has also shifted to video introductions since the 2019-20 academic year, “in the interest of ensuring equity of experience and opportunity among applicants,” according to its admission webpage.

Cyrus Hatam ’23
Cyrus Hatam ’23
Photo: Courtesy of Hatam ’23

“We found at Brown, at least, and I’m going to assume that it’s starting to happen across the board, that as the volume of applicants continued to increase each year, there were just not enough alumni interviewers to conduct these interviews,” says Connie Livingston, a former assistant director of admission at Brown who is now head of counselors at Empowerly college admission counseling. The videos are “really a great opportunity to get to know students a little bit better, which is exactly what the purpose of an alumni interview is.”

The University of Pennsylvania recently recast alumni interviews as “alumni conversations” which “provide an opportunity for you to learn about Penn through an alum’s experience, and for us to learn more about you,” according to the admission website, which also cautions, “Please don’t worry if you’re not contacted for this opportunity,” because the availability of alumni volunteers is limited. At Cornell, instead of interviews, the university offers applicants the chance to request an informal, non-evaluative conversation with an alumnus to ask questions about the university.

Harvard and Yale offer interviews at the discretion of their admission committees, in part based on prioritizing applicants about whom admission officers would like more information to make their decisions. One way to interpret that approach is, “The students who are definitely not getting in are not getting an interview, and the students who are definitely getting accepted are not getting an interview,” says Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president of One-Stop College Counseling. Whereas, “if you apply to Princeton and you have very bad grades, you will still get an interview, even though you’re not getting into Princeton.”

Like Princeton, Dartmouth aspires to offer alumni interviews to as many applicants as possible, as do MIT and Stanford. At Georgetown, alumni interviews are required of all applicants unless no alumni are available for interviews in a particular region.

At Princeton, there continues to be such strong alumni volunteer support for the program that interviewers reach out to 93% to 94% of applicants who opt to be interviewed, according to the University. “We are very fortunate in that … alums want to be ambassadors for Princeton
and still have such a connection to the place that they want to be able to share those experiences,” Richardson says.

Many of those who are not contacted for interviews live in countries where there are few alums to conduct them. There also have been times in recent years when conflict or unrest caused even remote interviews to be temporarily suspended in Syria, Yemen, and Iran, says Nasser Bin Nasser *03, chair of the interview program in Jordan who also has served as chair for Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Lebanon. The lack of an interview — either because the prospective student opted out, or because an interview connection could not be made — is never counted against an applicant, according to the admission office.

The University has also taken steps to prepare interviewers to operate in accordance with the Supreme Court decision on race and ethnicity in admission. In addition to two webinars that interviewers were invited to attend in recent months, the Office of the General Counsel prepared a FAQ sheet on the court ruling that interviewers must acknowledge having read. The document reminds volunteers not to ask questions “relating to race, color, national origin, ethnicity, or ancestry” and not to mention those characteristics in their interview reports. If an applicant brings up those demographics, alums should shift the discussion to how such characteristics may have shaped the student’s “experiences, determination, courage, leadership skills, and accomplishments — all of which are perfectly fine to discuss with the applicant.”

Richardson says that interviewers have long been instructed to focus on “lived experiences” rather than demographics, so the practical effect of the court ruling on the conversations should be minimal. Helen Dorini ’91, senior assistant dean and liaison to the alumni interview program, adds, “I don’t think alums need to change what they were doing, if they’re doing things the way we wanted them to do it in the past.”

Members of the the Princeton Schools Committee and admission office
Members of the the Princeton Schools Committee and admission office gather at Maclean House in April 2023.
Photo: Courtesy of Princeton Schools Committee

These potentially life-altering chats started happening in a formalized way just after World War II. There was a nationwide surge of applicants to college, and admission officers needed help assessing candidates. “The Admissions Office will still, of course, make the final decision as to which candidates shall be admitted, but the reports of alumni who have had an interview with them will be of invaluable assistance,” The Daily Princetonian reported in 1946.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, regional Alumni Schools Committee members played roles in both recruiting applicants and interviewing many of them, according to coverage in the Prince and anecdotes from alumni of the era. Alumni would get tips from guidance counselors, and they might be familiar with a student before the interview. By 1983, the Princeton interview was enough of a cultural phenomenon to earn the honor of mockery in the film Risky Business. In one scene, a hapless Princeton interviewer is trying to make sense of the Ray-Bans-sporting character played by Tom Cruise, while an outrageous house party swirls in the background.    

Since then, the practice has evolved significantly. Today, interviewers are discouraged from contacting high schools and are not provided any background on students before the interviews so their impressions will be fresh. They also receive extensive training materials on how to conduct the interviews, though there’s no prescribed set of questions to ask. “In my mind, the most important part of this interview is that they try to have a good, warm conversation,” Dorini says.

The logistics of deploying more than 7,000 volunteers to reach as many applicants as possible are dizzying. The interviewers are organized into more than 300 Alumni Schools Committee regions, each responsible for applicants from different parts of the United States or from different countries. In addition, there is a “central pool” where alumni can pick up interview assignments outside their region to support regions or countries that have a shortage of volunteers. A volunteer may interview anywhere from a handful to more than a dozen applicants a year. Nearly 20% of the interviewers come from the most recent five classes of graduates, but the interview pool spans eight decades: Interviewers for single choice early action this past fall ranged from the Class of 1944 to the Class of 2023.

Sitting atop this global network is the Princeton Schools Committee, which oversees and supports the Alumni Schools Committee regions, in partnership with the Office of Admission. The current volunteer chair of the Princeton Schools Committee is the seemingly indefatigable Charlene Huang Olson ’88, who says alumni interviews are more vital than ever. Given Princeton’s strides at drawing applicants from diverse backgrounds, Olson says, a large number of prospective students “don’t have family or friends who went to Princeton. They may never have met a person who went to Princeton. And a lot of them have never been to campus. ... They just know that Princeton is a phenomenal school.” The interview serves as a first encounter. “We are making an impression on these young students,” Olson says. “They’re formulating their impression about Princeton and about Princeton alumni.”

More volunteers are always welcome because “the number of applicants doesn’t usually ever go down,” Olson adds. (To sign up, go to   

Sometimes the conversations fall short of the ideal reflected in the exchanges that Bernstein and Hatam still cherish. Bradley Saft ’00 recalls how his interviewer in the mid-1990s turned the conversation into a trivia test: Countries with multiple capital cities? Largest landlocked country in Africa? Name of a country that begins with the letter “A” but doesn’t end in “A”?

To that last one, Saft said Azerbaijan, but the interviewer argued that Azerbaijan wasn’t a country (even though the U.S. recognized it in 1991). He was looking for Afghanistan.

“I came out of it feeling honestly very deflated because I didn’t think I was going to get in because I didn’t know the answers to these questions,” Saft says now. But he turned his disappointment into an opportunity. “I thought, boy, if I’m ever fortunate enough to be able to be admitted here and to matriculate, I want to create better experiences for the students that I meet than the one that I had. So when I graduated, the first thing I did was sign up for alumni interviewing. I really wanted to have the opportunity to make great experiences for people who are interested in the school.”

Saft became chair of the Princeton Schools Committee in 2019 and helped foster a significant evolution in the interview program known as “Positively Princeton.” The idea was for interviewers — in case they had any doubt — to think of themselves as ambassadors for Princeton and communicators of an applicant’s qualities rather than simply as evaluators or, worse, judges. “If you go into it approaching the conversation [by] saying that you are here to evaluate a high school senior, it sets you up for a dynamic that is inherently confrontational, as opposed to, I am here to educate, to enlighten, to share the love, and to add some color to the application that the admission office may not have,” Saft says. “When you go into it thinking that is your goal, then it’s inherently a positive conversation. It can’t be anything but positive.”

That approach is second nature to the newest generation of alumni interviewers, such as Ashlyn Lackey ’18, who has served as a recent alumni rep on the Princeton Schools Committee and recruits young alum interviewers. “You are not a gatekeeper” to Princeton, she says. “You are a portal into Princeton.”

Part of being a portal to Princeton is embodying a University community that may defy the expectations of students who have an outdated image of the place, says Aseneth Garza Scott ’13, who grew up in Texas near the Mexican border and has interviewed students from there as well as from Georgia and Tennessee, where she is a dean at an arts magnet school.

“I have had students tell me, ‘You’re not at all who I expected to see’” — meaning a Latina whose parents didn’t go to college, for whom Princeton was her dream school, and who used her Ivy League education to work in public schools, says Scott. “When I was interviewing people in South Texas … I was someone from my community ... . Kids were really curious about how my narrative was at Princeton … . It was often, like, ‘What got you there?’ ... They’ll ask me, ‘What’s it like being in the cold? ... What is it like living with people that are not Hispanic?’”

Still, there is an evaluative component to the interviews. Interviewers are asked to rate their “overall impression” of the student on a scale from “enthusiastic” to “with reservation.” But admission officers say the other two sections of the interviewers’ reports are more important: Interviewers are asked to write up to 3,000 characters on the content of the conversation, including what the student is enthusiastic about and any special circumstances that might shed light on their lives. They are also asked to write up to 1,000 characters on their overall impression, including such observations as what the student’s strengths are, would they make a good roommate, would they thrive at Princeton.

Interviewers are “here to educate, to enlighten, to share the love, and to add some color to the application that the admission office may not have. When you go into it thinking that is your goal, then it’s inherently a positive conversation.”

— Bradley Saft ’00
Former chair of the Princeton Schools Committee

Interviewers typically devote part of the conversation to asking students if they have any questions. The students’ curiosity is often driven by what’s in the news, says Nasser, one of more than 800 graduate alums who volunteer to interview undergraduate applicants. His first week at Princeton coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and now, during interviews he conducts at a coffee shop in Amman, Jordan, students express some of the same worries that loomed back then. “This year I have a lot of students asking me whether it’s safe for Muslims, whether it’s safe for Arabs, at Princeton,” he says. “People can feel free asking me this kind of question. But I don’t think they could ask an American interviewer that same question … . My message is that Princeton is a safe space. Regardless of what’s going on in the broader context of the country’s politics, Princeton itself is a very safe space.”

The Supreme Court decision hasn’t blocked communication of the essence of students’ stories, which goes deeper than demographic categories, says Doris Ofori ’17, who was born in Ghana, raised in the Bronx, and now serves remotely as the interview chair for Ghana while she attends business school. “You can remove the fact that they’re Black, remove the fact that they’re Ghanian, remove all these labels that we identify as affirmative-action-related,” she says. “At its core, the student’s drive, the student’s motivation, the student’s ambition will still be evident … . It’s about what are those unique experiences … as a byproduct of all the things you have to deal with growing up that have shaped you and formed you to be this individual.”

The 15 alumni interviewers who spoke with PAW say they are impressed and even inspired by most of the students they meet. But for some it was hard getting used to long dry spells of writing glowing reports on students without any being admitted. As admission rates hover around 5%, an average of 19 out of 20 conversations will not lead to an admitted student. (Of 39,644 applicants to the Class of 2027, 1,782 were admitted, or about 4.5%, according to the University.) Of course, each interviewer only meets a tiny sample of applicants and can’t know the strengths of the others. Lloyd Lawrence ’76, a longtime volunteer and interviewer mentor, whose preferred interview locations are Dairy Queens around Austin, Texas, recalls interviewing one young woman who seemed beyond outstanding. Yet she didn’t get admitted. “I don’t take it as a personal failure, but I just wonder what manner of other students, what kind of qualifications they were presenting, that would make hers look ordinary,” Lawrence says.

Faced with the unforgiving math, alumni interviewers focus on what’s most important about their role: To sustain stimulating and authentic conversations, then write the most compelling 4,000-character reports that they can. Whatever the outcome, such an encounter can still have an impact, and will certainly say something about Princeton, wherever the students end up.

“You don’t know who’s going to become a future Tiger,” Olson says. “The fact that Princeton offers this to any student who would like one, I think that’s the ultimate message of welcome … . It’s that personal connection that also sends this message to the students that Princeton is a little different. We think you’re not just an applicant number. You’re a person — and we want to meet that person.”

David Montgomery ’83 is a freelance journalist and former staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.